The oil and gas sector has a valuable role to play in new energy safety, explains Paul Davidson
In the build-up to and in the aftermath of COP26, we’ve seen an inevitable elevation in the dialogue on decarbonisation, and an increased focus on the role of renewables in the energy transition. Indeed, the Renewables 2020 Report forecasts that renewable energy capacity is projected to expand by 50% by 2024, making up nearly a third (30%) of global electricity supply.
However, as this acceleration of renewable and sustainable fuel sources intensifies, there is a steadily developing sense of urgency regarding another topic within the sector: safety.
The Image Of Renewables
To many, there is a perception that clean, renewable energy and environmental initiatives such as carbon capture and hydrogen, are green, clean and therefore safe. However, in reality, many of the risks are just as significant as those involved in the ‘traditional’ energy industries of oil and gas. The main difference is that there is less awareness of the dangers involved.
This was evidenced by independent research commissioned by Dräger earlier this year that showed that there is a growing recognition within industry that safety standards in the UK’s clean and renewable energy sector need to keep pace with broader developments and potentially learn from the oil and gas sector.
More than three in five (63%) managers in energy industries who took part in the research indicated that there are concerns in their organisation about a major safety incident occurring in the next five years, while 83% of managers across all sectors indicated concerns about emerging and evolving safety risks that they feel their business is still getting to grips with.
Interestingly, and perhaps reflecting the maturity of safety knowledge and experience in these sectors, the importance of reminding employees of the risk of a major safety disaster was a sentiment expressed most strongly in this research by managers in the oil and gas industry (93% compared to an average across all industries of 87%).
However, in many instances, safety considerations are more similar than might be imagined between oil and gas and renewables.
New Energy, Familiar Risks
The likely reutilisation of decommissioned oil rig platforms for use within the UK’s carbon capture and storage programme mean that although the purpose of the rig may be different, the operational hazards are much the same as those commonly faced on legacy oil rig operations: large numbers of people on a very remote platform in a harsh North Sea environment, with high volumes of hazardous gases. These hazards may be hydrogen and CO2 as opposed to methane or benzene, and they may be being pumped into the ground rather being extracted out of it, but the potential for a serious safety incident is much the same.
Those operating in the oil and gas industry will be familiar with the dangers of CO2 and the importance of gas detection monitoring to indicate any leaks which may pose a danger to the workforce.
The hazards of storing and transporting hydrogen are not well evidenced currently but we know that if hydrogen is inhaled in small concentrations it can cause similar symptoms to CO2 and exposure to high concentrations can lead to asphyxiation, particularly in confined spaces. Hydrogen used in fuel cells is also highly flammable and has a high risk of fire or explosion if not handled or stored correctly.
As a result, the presence of gas detection devices continues to be as essential in renewable energy generation as in traditional energy sectors, and this new generation can learn much about being vigilant in monitoring for hazards, particularly in environments of high risk and in confined spaces. Reassuringly, advancements in technology and in particular, forms of wireless technology, has revealed some exciting developments in safety systems. Using technologies such as Bluetooth and long-distance wireless networks (LoRa – Wan) has led to an evolution in gas detection.
There are currently systems with multiple gas detectors all communicating with each other and the central control system without the need for expensive cabling and installation. A further advantage of no cables is that it’s easy to move detectors and modify the system if the requirements change, offering greater flexibility and less site downtime.
The latest addition is “smart sensors”. These are gas detectors that are battery powered, self-contained wireless devices that can be located anywhere required and very simply connected to a local wireless network.
Ongoing Research To Understand Risks
Clearly there is still research being undertaken to understand the risk associated with some of these new forms of energy. Draeger is working closely with the University of Aberdeen to consider the optimisation of multiscale hydrogen storage and the company’s role will be to understand the safety aspects involved.
So whilst renewable energy and alternative fuel sources are clearly the future, Dräger believes that it is vital that there is greater awareness around the safety issues associated with cleaner and greener energy landscape and that the sector can learn much from the experience of the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, there is a need for ongoing investment to ensure greater awareness of the risks associated with all energy sectors through training, education and the provision of funding to support the industry to contend with the changing risk factors involved and to ensure that safety technology keeps pace with other advancements in the industry.
Paul Davidson is with Dräger Marine and Offshore